It’s Called Capitalism: Naming the System Behind Systemic Racism
An Interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
June 1, 2022
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She is also editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective and is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.
David McNally teaches history at the University of Houston, where he directs the Project on Race and Capitalism. His most recent book is Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire (Haymarket Books, 2020). He is now working on a book on slavery and capitalism.
The question of systemic racism has loomed especially large in the age of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Since 2013, the BLM insurgency has demonstrated that racist police violence is a problem inherent in policing as a system. Rather than random acts of violence, shootings of Black people are part of a persistent pattern of policing in the United States and beyond.
In recent years, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has emerged as one of the foremost analysts of the BLM movement and of the dynamics of systemic racism. As her publication list below indicates, she has directed particular attention to the ways racial oppression manifests itself in a critically important area of life such as housing. In focusing on housing, Taylor underscores the economic foundations of racial discrimination. Certain forces in our society, she points out, are getting immensely wealthy through the racialized real estate and housing practices that we find in the United States. And this can only mean that antiracist struggles will need to confront the ways in which racism is structured into economic markets. To challenge systemic racism thus means confronting economic power and the working of capitalism.
For these reasons, Taylor has also returned to the legacy of Martin Luther King. She presses us to consider King’s turn to social and economic issues—employment, housing, education, union rights—as indispensable to the overcoming of racism in the US. Taylor is examining King’s legacy in this area during the last two years of his life for its lessons for social movements today. This is crucially important, she points out, for all who want to think about the system in systemic racism.
In the following discussion with Spectre editor David McNally, Taylor explores a range of issues that are critical to the development of an antiracist and anti-capitalist left in the United States and beyond.
You’ve been speaking a lot recently about what we mean by the “system” in systemic racism. What are the key arguments and points you have been making in this regard?
I think it’s important to begin with the context. Coming out of the protests in the summer of 2020 there was a lot of discussion, in some cases from strange places, about the need to end what was universally being described as systemic racism. By strange places, I mean, for example, corporate America, which in the last two years has pledged almost $50 billion to address what they call systemic racism.
That really gave me pause to think about what is meant by systemic racism. On the one hand, we can understand systemic racism as the routine ways that racism expresses itself in almost every facet of American life. That includes not just explicit examples of racism, but also what some people describe as racism’s disparate impact—such as the fact that Black people are overrepresented among the ranks of the poor, the unemployed, the dispossessed, and all other measures of inequality in American society. That’s certainly one way to think about the systematic expression of racism throughout our society.
But it is insufficient to explain why racism persists when elected officials and corporate America all come out in unison against it. Why does it continue to exist some fifty years after the last civil rights legislation was passed in the United States? To answer that question, we must delve deeper into the systemic causes of racism.
For me, that entails analyzing the relationship between racism and the economic system of capitalism. That gets more at the heart of the problem. It explains why, despite changes in political leaderships and laws, US society continues to reproduce racism. That fact points to the way racism is a permanent feature of the economic system, the system of capitalism.
I think it’s important to think in those terms, because it gets us away from a kind of naturalized view of racism.
It cuts against the idea that racism is just kind of personal bigotry, that it’s a prejudice expressed against individuals or groups for their inherited characteristics. Anyone who has seriously looked at things like the real estate market or employment markets has to conclude that racism is much more than the personal attitudes of certain individuals.
Now in the wake of “antiracist studies” there’s greater agreement that racism is more than just individual attitudes. Books like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility have pushed towards deeper explanations. But there’s still a way in which racism remains naturalized in their arguments. For example, Wilkerson’s Caste talks about racism as a system. But many of the metaphors she uses come back to nature. They come back to the body.
So, we are back to a naturalized concept of race and racism. She is not alone in doing this. Ibram X. Kendi does the same kind of the thing. He compares racism to cancer, again to a natural phenomenon. So, racism somehow is mysteriously metabolizing and metamorphosizing itself in the body.
Those are dangerous metaphors that come perilously close to making racism, which is a social phenomenon, natural and unchangeable. Those metaphors undermine the argument that racism is an historical development. And in doing so make it hard to imagine how it can be gotten rid of.
That’s why I think it’s important to talk about racism specifically as a product of history, a social phenomenon with historical origins in the economic system of capitalism. Once you look at it that way, you can explain why it persists even as various politicians, public policies, and behaviors and attitudes change. I say that not to dismiss such changes. They are, of course, incredibly important. But those changes have not ended systemic racism.
Capitalism limits the ability of those changes to end systemic racism. It also explains why those changes can be reversed as we are seeing today. Capitalism creates competition between groups of workers because of the way the system imposes the false conditions of scarcity, and it means that groups of workers and marginalized people are defined as ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving.’ Historically that distinction has been closely tied to racial or ethnic difference, groups that are often racialized. So, racism continues to be used as a political tool and cudgel by those who have power and authority in our society to keep apart those who have the greatest interest in coming together to fight for both short-term and long-term interests.
That raises the question of racial capitalism, which has recently gained enormous currency among radical and critical scholars. At times, however, you have expressed concern about the vagueness with which the term is sometimes used. So, could you say a little bit about your own thinking about the concept, how it might need to be clarified, strengthened, and developed to have the kind of analytical power that we need, and what strategic political directions it points us toward?
I think the most important thing to say is that the concept needs to be developed. People invoke the work of Cedric Robinson to talk about racial capitalism, but as Robin Kelley has pointed out, the phrase is actually used very sparingly in his book, Black Marxism, and certainly not in any kind of comprehensive way that gives us a real working definition or understanding of it.
And I think what has happened is that it has almost become like the term, neoliberalism, which has become this very capacious concept and phrase invoked by all sorts of people to mean all sorts of things. When that happens with a term like neoliberalism or racial capitalism, they become somewhat murky and obscure in terms of what is actually being articulated or defined. This imprecision doesn’t bring us more clarity about racism or capitalism. It can often bring more confusion.
Nevertheless, I understand the motivations behind the fairly recent adoption and usage of the idea of racial capitalism. Again, context is important. During the last several years there’s been a revival in the academy of work on the history of capitalism. That effort is led by a school of academics to bring capitalism back into our understanding of the economic and political development of the US. They try to show the role of capitalism in that history.
But what has often happened in these histories of capitalism is that race has been seen as kind of a side note, and not really integrated into these discussions about the development of capitalism in the US context. In response, people who have been most emphatic about bringing race into the discussion have done so by talking about racial capitalism. They have pointed out that, in US history, it is really difficult to delineate between the development of capitalism and the development of race and racism.
US history began through colonial settlement and genocide against the Indigenous population, continued through the role of racial slavery, and expanded through the exploitation of immigrant labor and Black labor after slavery. All of this was shot through with racialization and racism. There is really no period in the history of the United States where race and ethnicity were not completely bound up with the exploitation of labor and the exploitation of the land’s resources by the capitalist class, or in more popular terms, the rich or the elite.
So, you can’t really talk about these things as separate. That is the historical case for using the concept of racial capitalism. But I think it still remains cloudy and needs to be developed. We need to understand what the co-constituent aspects of racism and capitalism are, how they function, and their roles in the political economy of our society. I think some of the best work that is being done in this regard is around the issues of real estate, of property in land, both historically and today. Race has been so critical to the development of land value, land devaluation, and land expropriation.
I do think there’s a fruitful way to analyze these practices in terms of labor and employment and the way that race is used to both create value and substantiate practices of extraction in addition to exploitation. My reluctance to use racial capitalism wantonly is that it’s no different than saying capitalism. All of what’s being described is a function of capitalism. How does calling it racial capitalism do something particular to analyze race and racism as well as capitalism?
I think we would be better served by going back to the development of the idea of racial capitalism, which was not in Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, but in the Marxist tradition in South Africa. What is useful about that history? I think their development of the concept can be generalized beyond the South African context. My understanding of their arguments is that they developed them in part to reject the Communist Party’s stagist approach to revolution and the social transformation in the country.
The Communist Party’s idea was that the revolution would first have to get rid of Apartheid and establish a biracial bourgeois democracy and then later fight to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism. Those who argued against that kind of stagist approach to social transformation said that it was impossible to disconnect the fight against Apartheid from the fight against capitalism; the two had to be conjoined.
Of course, South Africa’s history is specific. And these dissident Marxists developed their ideas to address its particularity. The question is how we use their thinking outside its original history and context to explain patterns of race and capitalism in the US. I do think that there is some utility in their work in that it brings attention to the particular ways that capitalism has distorted and undermined the life chances of Black and Brown people in the US.
But are there other contexts within which this works? I think that there have been some powerful arguments from Olúf mi Táíwò in particular that argue persuasively that it does work. They show the way that race and ethnicity have been utilized to create more powerful exploitative practices and are used to substantiate powerful extractive practices.
I think that we have to work on spelling all of this out and developing the concept more. So, I think in that sense it is useful. It’s a useful way of understanding the particular impacts that capitalism has on populations that are oppressed not just as workers but also on the basis of race, nation, and ethnicity. And to that end, I do think that it’s a productive exercise. It’s a productive set of arguments and debates to engage with. I just think that it would be more helpful to use the actual origins of the concept as a starting point in the discussion.
In some ways, everything you’re saying also takes us back to points you’ve made about the legacy of the late Martin Luther King, where you have drawn attention to the fact that by 1966–67 Dr. King was beginning to identify a whole series of social and economic dimensions to racial oppression and exploitation in the United States involving employment, housing, healthcare, and education. He was expanding the civil rights agenda. Could you talk a little bit more about how you see King’s late trajectory, and what you consider to be the relevance of that period for activists today?
The first thing to say is that I think King is an important figure for two key reasons. One is because he is just so terribly used by the Right and by liberals in ways that completely distort his actual political thought, and his political legacy. The problem is not just the distortion in and of itself, but it’s the way his ideas are twisted to uphold an agenda that is completely antithetical to his actual politics in order to try to undermine campaigns that he would have supported.
So, one of the reasons why it’s important to talk about King is to set the record straight and counter the way that he is so completely misused by the Right. They talk about Martin Luther King as if the only thing he ever had to say was in 1963 at the March on Washington, in a single sentence out of an entire speech about the content of one’s character. Their distortion of King is an absurdity.
But there’s also a way in which the liberal establishment also misuses King. They co-opt him into their narrative of American history as progress of overcoming past abuses in an ever-improving and more perfect union. Somehow mystically the forces of nature are pushing us towards progress. And of course, this is also a complete absurdity. The liberal establishment uses King in this way to cover up the fact that we’re a troubled country that has lots of structural inequalities of race and class among many others that we must overcome.
The degree to which we have any rights is a result of struggle. Our rights have come through a steadfast opposition to the status quo. King certainly exemplified that and understood that there was nothing natural about progress towards rights, but that there had to be a kind of dogged struggle in order to secure those rights. It is for me critical to correct those distortions of King.
But there is a second reason to talk about King. This has to do with his actual politics and ideas. I like referencing him partly because he is able to articulate and popularize a social democratic agenda in ways that most others fail to do. He explains this agenda so powerfully and shows how Black people and Black workers fit into it. It is jolting for people to hear what King, this preacher held up as a symbol of American progress and overcoming, actually believed and fought for by the end of his life.
He argued that there had to be a radical reconstruction of American society in order for there to truly be freedom and justice in this country. King didn’t see himself or describe himself as a socialist. I think he would describe himself in the language of social democracy. He saw himself as a radical Christian but understood the role of struggle and the absolute need for redistribution to fix the problems that were at the root of the inequality, ostracization, and marginalization of Black populations.
One of the things I think is absolutely instructive for the movement today is the conclusion he comes to in 1966 and 1967. After successfully leading the mass movement in the South to end Jim Crow and to secure civil rights, securing the right for Black people to vote in the South with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King shifts his attention to the North. He finds that however important those newly won rights are, they really had almost no impact on Black life outside of the South.
So, his strategy was to turn his attention to the North to combat the patterns of racism there. He does so amidst the great period of Black rebellion, which begins in Birmingham in 1963 but really takes hold by 1965 with the Watts riots in South Los Angeles. At the time, these were the largest wave of uprisings in the United States since the nineteenth century, during the Civil War. They marked a momentous shift in the politics of the United States.
King believed that if he took his strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience to a quintessential northern city like Chicago and successfully challenged housing segregation, he could give Black communities across the country a model that they could use to challenge the status quo. He hoped to offer a strategy that didn’t involve burning down the city in order to achieve change.
You have looked closely at MLK’s experiences in Chicago in the later 1960s. Could you describe what he tried to do there, and what political and strategic lessons he drew from his experience there?
He goes to Chicago and encounters an existing freedom movement on the ground. He becomes a part of it in the hopes of advancing his model of struggle in the North. But he runs into three different challenges. First, he finds that there are a number of established Black people who are not interested in disrupting the status quo, partially because they benefit from it as business owners, as people who financially benefit from a captive audience built on de facto, not de jure, segregation. They have no particular interest in dispersing the Black community throughout the wider Chicago metropolitan area. They had an interest in the maintenance of the status quo.
They also have found ways to benefit through the Chicago political machine. It gave them certain assets in return for delivering Black voters to the Democratic Party establishment. But that bargain entailed defending the status quo, which was racial segregation. As a result of this set up in the Chicago, King runs into powerful Black opponents.
Second, King faces another problem that is difficult to overcome, which is that segregation is not maintained through laws. You don’t have legal segregation. There are no signs saying that Black people can’t live here and can only live there. Racial zoning is illegal. So, there’s no legal aspect to the racial discrimination that Black people face. If that’s the case, then what is the focal point of your campaign?
In the South, it was clear what the focal point was. It was changing Jim Crow laws, getting rid of Jim Crow laws, winning the right to vote. But Black people in Chicago can vote. They can ostensibly, in the eyes of the law, live wherever they want to live. So, what is the focal point and target of your campaign? The answer they come up with is to target racial discrimination by ending the practice of using predatory and exploitative contracts in housing. Those were legal strategies that had been used to enclose Black people into Black neighborhoods.
Third, King and his fellow activists face a savvy political class led by Richard Daley who was not like the bumbling Southern idiots who could not imagine Black people challenging the authority of white supremacy. The Southern political class had come to believe their own rhetoric about the deference of Black people. So, when Black people went into motion against the establishment, the politicians went crazy and just unleashed the police to beat people and sic their dogs on people, all on live television. Their racist repression backfired, discredited them, and led to their defeat as their whole Jim Crow order cracked apart.
By contrast, the white political establishment in the North was way savvier than that, in part because Black people could vote, and they needed Black votes. So, they used the political machinery to ingratiate themselves with a layer of Black elected officials whom they rewarded with favors to keep de facto segregation intact. These three features of the political setup in the North made it challenging for the nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience to succeed. In some way, it was impervious to the political strategy King had pursued in the South.
As a result, King was there for a year and ultimately failed in all of the objectives of his campaign. He secured some token promises, but ultimately the strategy failed. King concluded that it failed because there were financial interests that were rooted in maintaining the status quo. And housing segregation was not just about white people not wanting Black neighbors. It was about keeping a captive market of Black renters, which enabled landlords to charge exorbitant rents. It meant excluding Black people from the mortgage market so that you could exploit them ruthlessly through the use of land installment contracts. These mechanisms also added value to white housing. The further white people got from Black neighborhoods and from Black neighbors, the more value accrued to their housing.
So, there were deep financial interests at stake in maintaining northern segregation. King came to recognize all of this, especially when he grasped how the labor market was segmented by race, locking Black laborers into low paid, dirty work, the profits from which flowed to business owners. He realized that if Black workers were to earn the minimum wage or to ask for benefits or more money, they would throw the economy within these industries into disarray. So, he began to identify the financial interest not only in the maintenance of segregation, but also in the wage differentials between Black workers and the rest of the US working class.
These financial interests, King realized, were a central reason for the establishment’s maintenance and defense of the systems of racial inequality. It would cost billions of dollars to actually improve the housing of Black people, improve the resources in education, and give Black people jobs that paid enough for people to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Avoiding such costs was part of the establishment’s economic incentive for keeping Black workers subjugated.
Once King identified the material basis and foundation for the oppression of Black workers, he began to develop new strategies for the struggle. He did not abandon nonviolent civil disobedience. That still was a core aspect of the strategy. But he began to develop the new political strategy of a poor people’s movement. The question he began to raise is: how can we get all these people who don’t actually have an interest in the status quo, who don’t have an interest in society as it is, to come together and fight for a radical reconstruction of American society? He recognized that while Black people may be particularly impacted by the inequality that exists in this country, Black people alone cannot change it, and that there are other people who also do not benefit from this arrangement. They may not be as poor off as Black workers, but they nonetheless do not benefit from these arrangements. What would it mean to pull all of these people into a campaign?
That led him to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. He started to mobilize a multiracial movement of poor people for an encampment in Washington, DC. He created a spectacle around the issue of poverty, one that used their physical presence to try and shut down business as usual in the nation’s capital. This wasn’t the kind of classic Marxist turn to strikes or the role of labor in a particular workplace to shut down production. But there’s an important strategic shift on King’s part to advocate a mass, multiracial movement of poor people as a way to challenge the political, social, and economic status quo.
This advocacy of a multiracial movement of poor people seems to be a particularly important legacy today. Could you discuss its contemporary relevance?
It is definitely significant for the movement today. I think it’s critical because the pandemic really brought to the surface the enormous inequality that exists across the United States. Some of what was exposed was the particular conditions for African–Americans. But because of the longevity and duration of the pandemic, everyone was given a crash course about class inequality and the complete and total absence of any social safety net.
The pandemic also demonstrated the meanness of the political class, who wasted time debating a few extra hundred dollars in benefits during this historic moment of human need when people had absolutely no choice but to rely on government aid. This political class, which is disproportionately made up of millionaires, were haggling over a few dollars while people were losing their jobs, houses, and apartments, their health, and their lives. This spectacle of rich people trying to save a few bucks while masses of people were at risk was an educational moment for the American public.
Moreover, the common experience of the pandemic cut against people’s idea that they were going through something individually, or that they were to blame for not preparing and, as the economists say, saving three times your pay for a rainy day. Such ideas no longer made any sense; people who were suffering were not to blame and could in no way have prepared for this catastrophe. And, once people could see that this wasn’t due to their irresponsibility, but was a crisis affecting most people across the country, everyone could see the similarity of their condition.
All of this found expression in the explosion of protest in the summer of 2020. Some want to say that it was just about racism and police brutality. Of course, that was the catalyst and central issue. But, as I argued in my first book, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, police brutality is always a catalyst because it is the most visceral evidence that your citizenship means nothing in this country.
If you can be stopped and questioned and brutalized and have some white smug cop sit on your neck for nine minutes while a crowd of people are telling him to get off, while he looks back with a smirk on his face, then you don’t have any real citizenship or rights. You are in some other category, and that dehumanization is radicalizing, and it is infuriating. And it will get people on the streets. But what keeps people on the streets is a kind of deep inequality that exists throughout every aspect of life.
That was all on display in the pandemic. It brought to the surface all the systemic problems of housing, healthcare, job security, and poverty, all in the context of the near complete absence of a safety net. This social reality for the majority of our country brought people together in the streets. The question coming out of these explosions of struggle is how do we build something ongoing? Because the fact is that no left entity organized any of that. No liberal entity organized it either.
It was a social outpouring. Here in Philadelphia, where I live, the largest demonstration had over one hundred thousand people. It was organized by a couple of high school students on Facebook. They called for people to come downtown, and one hundred thousand heeded their appeal.
So, no one organized the wave of struggle in any traditional sense. There were few forces positioned to call it, let alone lead it. Nevertheless, the Left had a tremendous opportunity coming out of that to ask: what are we building out of this? What are our demands? How are we trying to harness this unprecedented historic expression of political power on the streets? But these questions got deferred as people’s focus and energy got pushed into the presidential election in November, and then the Georgia Senate races in January.
Those with the most influence basically believed that they could leverage getting out the vote for the Democratic Party and then, once in office, get them to deliver on a set of demands encapsulated in the Breathe Act. This one-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page bill focused on defunding the police and redistributing those resources to community organizations. But that bill was never going to go anywhere without the social power that was on the streets in the summer of 2020. Those protests had forced Joe Biden to go from saying in the fall of 2019 that not much will change if I’m the candidate to offering a wish list of left demands in the fall of 2020. That was forced on him by the power of the protest and by his understanding that he actually needed these people in the streets to vote for him in order to get into office.
But that opportunity was squandered. Those who had influence within the movement made a bet on the Democrats and lost. And we know they lost because the wish list of demands just was allowed to wither and die on the vine. Why? Because there was little struggle in the streets to force through our demands. The collapse of the Build Back Better legislation is wholly the result of the collapse of the movement.
The Democrats like to focus on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, but they were only the most vocal. If anyone believes that every other millionaire Democratic senator was somehow for this massive redistribution of wealth they’re deluding themselves. To cover up this larger problem, the Democrats and their supporters in the movement just blamed these two senators. But the bigger issue is that those with influence bargained on the Democrats and lost.
The price for that loss has been high. Joe Biden’s visit to New York City this spring symbolizes the reversal we have suffered. He gave a public address about crime with the new mayor of New York, Eric Adams, and not only did he oppose the demand to defund the police, but he also supported more funding. He actually went back and bragged about his role in writing the 1994 crime bill that played a key role in mass incarceration. He boasted about a bill that he had been forced to concede was a mistake during the fall of 2020.
That alone demonstrates just how bad the miscalculation was that the Democrats could be allies to the movement and help win reforms for defunding the police and redistributing resources to communities. Not only did they betray those hopes, but now the Democrats are doubling down on law and order. And it’s not only white Democrats doing this. In some cases, the behavior of Black Democrats has been insidious. Some of them are insinuating that the demand for defunding the police came from white people, especially these kind of Bernie Sanders radicals. They try to dismiss the demand as coming from outside of Black communities, whose members, they imply, are deeply pragmatic and understand the political constraints.
So, we missed the moment at the peak of the Black Lives Matter uprising, when there was this historic number of protests, to galvanize, organize, and sustain a longer-lasting movement. It was squandered on the Democrats. We’re still in the aftermath of that miscalculation and have not really figured out how to regroup. And the pressure is on once again to reinvigorate the same failed strategy in the midterm elections in November. The danger is that continuing to follow that strategy will deepen the current confusion and demobilization.
Let’s turn to the Black Lives Matter movement, which you analyzed in From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Next year, we’ll be a decade into the BLM movement. How do you assess both its accomplishments and its most important strategic challenges going forward?
I’m in the middle of writing about this for Black Lives Matter panels and forums. The catalyzing event that sparked the movement was, of course, the murder of Trayvon Martin in the winter of 2012. That led to the formation of the Dream Defenders and a national campaign for the arrest of George Zimmerman. It was the acquittal of George Zimmerman that helped to inaugurate the formation of Black Lives Matter as an organization.
Over the last ten years, it’s a fact and achievement that the antiracist movement has helped to change the national understanding of racism. It has moved it sharply away from the notion of racism as just a kind of individual behavior and individual problem to seeing it as an all-encompassing feature of American society.
I think that the movement has shifted the understanding of police abuse and violence away from the idea that these are the result of bad behavior of errant police officers to an idea that abuse and violence is a systemic problem with policing itself. The police helped with that as well when, in the summer of 2020, in any given city, they just beat people and acted like thugs. There has been a sea change in how the American public understands the issue of policing.
Some of that can be measured by the efforts, whether successful or failed, to advance various aspects of police reform. There’ve been efforts at bail reform, the decriminalization of marijuana, and all sorts of tinkering with the criminal justice system. As inadequate as they may be, they point to an understanding that there are aspects of this problem that have to be addressed. All of that is attributable to a ten-year relentless focus and campaign on those issues.
But there are serious discussions about organization among activists. Some of the debates come from the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many accepted the idea of horizontal organizing and counter-posed it to organization. That shaped the early debates within BLM. Some said we’re all leaders, so we don’t need a defined leadership. They argued that Twitter means we don’t need organizations, because it and other social media give us the ability to reach people. They said, “this is not your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”
Some aspects of what they said are true. We don’t need to replicate all the things that we’ve done in the past. But I think that we have to look at things in the past and try to evaluate how the historical periods are different, and based on that, decide what may be useful, what may not be, from previous struggles. That includes assessing the lessons from our experience over the last decade and decide what worked and what did not advance the struggle.
I think we can say that the idea you could resolve what are important issues within the movement without organizing debates and discussions has been wrong. The idea that you could simply resolve these over social media platforms was wrong. The idea that there aren’t leaders, that were all leading, was wrong.
And to me, there are many clear examples, but I’ll just talk about one that I’ve been writing about. In July of 2020, Patrisse Cullors, who had yet to be named as the executive director of the organization, Black Lives Matter, was invited by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to address that body about what they should include in the Democratic Party Platform. Because this was the summer before the fall election, the Democrats were focused on how to turn these protests in the streets into a get-out-the-vote effort. So there were all kinds of overtures to Black activists.
Cullors, along with the leadership of the umbrella organization, the Movement for Black Lives, which includes a hundred Black-led organizations, wanted to address the DNC about the Breathe Act. So, Cullors goes, and she’s given I think seven minutes to make an address. And what’s interesting to me is that she announced that she was making her remarks based on the speech that John Lewis was scheduled to give at the 1963 March on Washington but was censored.
For people who don’t know, Lewis was then a young activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was scheduled to give an address at the March on Washington. But minutes before he was to go on, Martin Luther King and A. Phillip Randolph said that his speech was too incendiary because of his biting, critical remarks about the Democratic Party. He also pledged to march through the South as Sherman had done to smash the South into a thousand pieces and remake it as a democracy. King and Randolph judged this a bridge too far, and they censored the speech. They rewrote parts of it, took out some things, and softened the edges on others. And that was the speech that he gave.
Patrisse Cullors said that she was going to give her speech based on Lewis’ censored speech. But she took out the comments about the Democratic Party because the point was to push the party, not completely break from it. The point was not to declare that these are our demands, and it doesn’t matter who’s in office, we’re going to build a movement that will hold anyone to account. Whether you agree with our demands or not is not the point.
The point is that in the midst of the biggest social uprising in American history, a leader of this organization presents herself as speaking on behalf of the movement. But there are all sorts of organizations and all sorts of people who are trying to do work, and there is no effort to organize any discussion, to organize any semblance of any kind of democratic input from people who have been invested in this work, and any debate about what to say and what to demand. Nevertheless, she is allowed to speak on behalf of the movement. This represents a pattern of, frankly, an antidemocratic approach to organizing.
There has also been lots of media coverage about BLM focused on scandals around leadership, organization, and funding. That stuff is important because it does speak to issues of democracy, leadership, and decision-making. But there are bigger issues that have to do with who speaks for whom and how are those determinations made. There was something like twelve chapters of BLM that were essentially pushed out of network for raising questions about democratic decision-making.
These problems are pervasive throughout a movement that has absorbed a way of organizing based on foundation funding. This way of funding impacts organizing. It cultivates leaders with access to funders who, as a result, are powerful relative to their group. They are executive directors with paid staff who constitute the real core of decision-making. It reduces wider layers of people to a passive public who get called out to protest or show up to things, but who are not seen as critical to decision-making.
The group Black Lives Matter has almost become a caricature of this, literally transforming itself from a grassroots organization into a foundation. It is now called the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. It is now a Ford Foundation-like organization that dispenses money and no longer sees itself as an activist formation. That helps explain the political stagnation that exists right now.
The question coming out of the long shadow of the 2020 moment is: how does this part of the Left reconstitute itself into a democratic, politically accountable leadership that does not see Black and multiracial public as passive participants in big protests but instead sees itself as creating organizations of leaders and organizers. An organization with the express purpose of building an independent movement that has its own goals and objectives that are not tied to the electoral cycle and that are not tied to a particular political party. That’s hard, but that’s the challenge of today.
We can see the potential right there in the protests and demonstrations in 2020. As I said before, those were catalyzed by racism and police brutality, but it was the pandemic that helped bring people together. But, like protests throughout the Trump administration, they became catch-alls for fighting against Trump’s agenda of inequality, racism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. These protests became vehicles for all of that.
We need organizations and coalitions that bring together these people from across many different sectors to figure out what are our objectives, what are the goals that we are fighting for, and to organize campaigns around those things. Showing up at a protest is different from building an organization. In these efforts, I think we have a lot to learn from the union drives at Starbucks and Amazon about what it looks like to build multiracial groups right now that are focused on campaigns and have clear objectives.
This project of multiracial organizing is not a novel one. It is an idea in the United States that the Left comes to over and over again. It’s a necessity to overcome racism and forge unity. Racism is, after all, so central to the way our society functions, and it obstructs organizing. So, multiracial organizing has always been quite difficult for a multitude of reasons.
The question of how to do this today is what we have to figure out. How do we build specific campaigns and how do we engage these political issues in ways that don’t exacerbate the divisions that inevitably exist in our society? These are difficult questions to which I don’t think there are easy answers. But I think that figuring this out and doing practical work is the task of our moment.